Finding the right roleWhen Suzanna Oh, then Suzanna Samstag, arrived in Korea on July 31, 1980, she was a wide-eyed college graduate looking forward to two years of service as a Peace Corps volunteer in an unfamiliar land. Twenty-two years later, she's still here, home on the peninsula with a family and a job that taps her bilingual ability.
"Like any other college senior, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do after I got out," Ms. Oh says in her office at Unibooks, an English textbook publisher located in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul. Her parents, both lawyers, expected that Ms. Oh would eventually go on to law school. A chance meeting with someone doing volunteer work in the United States, however, inspired her to do her part in the world and she signed on with the Peace Corps.
"The Korea program did not require any skills," she said, "and I thought two years would give me time to think about what I would do next." After a few months of training in Korean language and culture and tuberculosis education, she was dispatched to a government-run rural health clinic in Sacheon-gun, South Gyeongsang province.
There, she worked as a TB volunteer, encouraging TB patients to keep to their regimen of medications. "Many patients just discontinued with their medication when they felt better and sold off the remaining medication," she said. "This made things worse for them because if the bacteria are not completely eradicated from the body, they can come back in an even stronger form and be harder to fight off."
She also remembers putting on skits with her Peace Corps colleagues at the village on market day when crowds would gather. The skits were part of an outreach education program to teach farming communities about leprosy, the importance of good nutrition and motherand child health issues.
Unfortunately, her fieldwork came to an abrupt end as the Peace Corps' Korea program was suddenly terminated due to budget cuts. "I am really embarrassed when I talk about my Peace Corps experience," Ms. Oh says with a chuckle. "It only lasted seven or eight months while some of my predecessors had stayed for three years."
Faced with the choice of staying on, returning to the United States or transferring to Tonga, Ms. Oh decided to stay, enrolling at the graduate program run by Seoul National University's American Studies Institute.
That same year, she watched a samulnori, a four-Korean-instrument performance, and was so enthralled by it that she asked the samulnori master Kim Duk-su to take her on as a student. "I never really liked music before that," she says. "In fact, samulnori became the only music I ever studied."
When the master refused to take on Ms. Oh, she went on to learn mask dancing at an institute. An avid learner, she picked up all the different dance forms despite their enormous physical demands. "The greatest difficulty is that you lose all sense of balance because you can see very little through the tiny eyeholes of masks," she says.
Undeterred by Mr. Kim's rejection, Ms. Oh continued to hang around the troupe's office, cleaning it, buying supplies and generally helping out, something the troupe did not mind. "One day, I was tidying up the desk and saw all these letters from overseas that were just thrown away because no one could write in English," Ms. Oh says. That day, she got herself hired by Mr. Kim as the troupe's overseas manager. She went on international tours with the troupe, assisting in their workshops for foreigners that usually followed the performances. In 1986, she stayed in Japan for four months teaching samulnori to Korean-Japanese.
In 1991 Ms. Oh began working as an editor at the Korean edition of Newsweek, checking translations from English to Korean, a job she held for some 10 years.
What is it like for a Western woman to be working in a society that is still very much male-oriented? Be nonconfrontational, but be persistent, she advised. "If you persist, in time, they will give you more responsibilities and you will earn the leverage," she said. "I spent all my adult working life in Seoul. I don't know how it could be like otherwise."
Gary Rector, a longtime friend from her Peace Corps days, does not recall Ms. Oh complaining about such things. "She is very hardworking and polite, almost to a fault. It is very difficult to refuse such a polite person," he says. Perhaps being a Western woman was an advantage. "Foreign women can sometimes get away with things that would not be deemed acceptable if done by a Korean woman," he adds.
Ms. Oh attributes her mastery of the Korean language to the theater. An avid theatergoer, she spent many hours at the theater and knows all the small theaters in town that are tucked away in basements. "I would keep going to the same play over and over again until I understood it completely," she says.
She also met her husband, Oh Ki-seuk, an amateur poet, at a theater during a poetry reading. The couple wed in 1996 and they have a daughter, Ji-yun, 5, and a son, Sang-hyuk, 3.
Although her current job title is editorial team director, she is also heavily involved in her company's new English-language drama troupe for children. "We have six professional actors and an artistic director from Australia that have just arrived and I am helping them settle in," she says.
It is a perfect opportunity to put the training that she received as a Peace Corps volunteer to use. People need proper orientation in order to be successful in a new culture, according to Ms. Oh. "You need some connection with Korea, some inkling about Korea, like cultural things," she says.
"It is all about karma, really. Getting involved in the theater again, putting the Peace Corps training to use," she says while getting ready to go over to the troupe's apartment to arrange the newly arrived furniture. "You need to live a good life."
by Kim Hoo-ran